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Monday, December 18, 2006

Enforcing Word Limits

I'm in the midst of grading, and have run into a problem I had not yet encountered in my (admittedly short) teaching career:

On my Federal Courts exam, I have strict word limits for each question. The students are directed to answer three short-answer questions (from a list of five) and an essay question.  The word limits on the short-answer questions vary, but are generally ~200-250 words.

The problem:  I just finished reading a student paper that was very good, but that was over the word limit on each question. Way over. Examples: For one short-answer question, with a 250-word limit, the student wrote 495 words. For another question with a 200-word limit, the student wrote 408 words, and for the third question, also with a 200-word limit, the student wrote only 315 words.

The question is how to take this flagrant disregard for the word limits into account. Clearly, some penalty should be imposed, or else it would be unfair to all of the students who abided by the (rather draconian) limits. And it's not like I wasn't clear that there would be word limits, and that those limits would be enforced; I was.  So, do I just stop reading at word-limit-plus-one, or do I reduce the overall grade for the answer by some fixed percentage (and if so, what?). I've never been the biggest fan of the former approach, because it's hard to stop reading mid-sentence.

So, my tentative course of action is to grade the answer in its entirety, and then reduce it in proportion to the percentage of excess words. Thus, for the questions for which the student wrote twice as much, halve the grade; for the question for which the student exceeded the word limit by 50%, take 1/3 off the grade for that question.

But I'm curious for others' thoughts. Am I being too harsh? Not harsh enough?

Posted by Steve Vladeck on December 18, 2006 at 06:58 PM in Life of Law Schools, Steve Vladeck, Teaching Law | Permalink


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Ben -- There's definitely a lesson here about notice. But I guess it begs the question of just how specific a professor has to be about the means by which s/he plans to penalize violations of word limits... As long as some penalty is contemplated, should the prof really have no discretion as to what that penalty _is_?

Posted by: Steve Vladeck | Dec 18, 2006 8:00:32 PM

Will -- Here's what it says in the instructions:

"Please note that there is a word limit on _every_ question on the final examination and that the word limits will be enforced. Part of the exercise, therefore, is to confine your answers to the number of words allotted. You may _NOT_ exceed the word limits."

As for S.cotus -- that other professors are inconsistent in their application of word limits doesn't strike me as a reason for me to do the same. If almost every other student adhered to the word limit, isn't it terribly unfair to them to not penalize a student who wrote, in most cases, _twice_ as much, and therefore provided more comprehensive answers?

Finally, let me add that stopping at word 250 seems almost more punitive than weighing the entire answer and imposing a penalty.

Posted by: Steve Vladeck | Dec 18, 2006 7:58:47 PM

As a law student myself I'll have to say, your method of downgrading for going over is appealing, sadly I think it's unfair without notice. It offers a good trade off for the student. If they know about it and can't think of a way to limit their answer they know that by going say 20 words over they can ensure a better answer at a hit of x percent to the total grade for that question.

As for now I would say the only fair way is to stop reading at the end of the sentence which includes the 200th or 250th word. If the person gets all clever and makes their last sentence have a few conjunctions, a handful of semi-colons and and colon or two, stop at the nearest clause.

I'd say that you can bring up the fact that a student suggested this when the student inevitably comes in to complain, but I lack "cred" when it comes to grading in law school, I go to Northeastern.

Posted by: Ben Snitkoff | Dec 18, 2006 7:56:12 PM

I agree with anon. First, it is standard, or something close to standard, to enforce word limits by not reading past the limit. Second, more punitive action seems unfair. The purpose of enforcing word limits is strictly to be fair to other students. You shouldn't be seeking to exact punishment on the student for the moral transgression of violating the word limit. Stopping at the limit is sufficiently punitive to negate any benefit and even impose an extra penalty. The student has the same limit as everyone else and he looses the ability to ensure that his most important points fit within the limit.

Posted by: anonlawstudent | Dec 18, 2006 7:52:28 PM

Since what we have here is essentially an interpretive question (perhaps weighted by rules of fair notice, equal protection, and lenity), perhaps you could post the exact word instruction you used on the exam? I tend to agree with anon that to say a "limit will be strictly enforced" implies that all attempts that all attempts to exceed that lmiit will simply be nugatory (like the limits on the federal government's powers), but a subtle change in wording might lead to a subtly different answer.

Posted by: William Baude | Dec 18, 2006 7:52:27 PM

Let’s be honest here: most professors never enforce their word limits (nor do moot court competitions). Rules like this are the most frequently abused, and to penalize a student for doing what other students do in other classes would probably be unfair.

In more than a few situations word limits have been announced on long-term, open-book exams, only to be expanded in later days. So, for example, in a 250-word-limit question, due seven days later, a student might have started writing a 10,000-word answer, which would have initially be over the limit, but later was within the “relaxed” non-limit. The student got an A. All the students that planned on doing only 250, got Bs and Cs (because of a low curve.) That is life in the big city.

Posted by: S.cotus | Dec 18, 2006 7:52:10 PM

saying the word limit will be strictly enforced implies that words beyond the limit will not be read. that is what a word limit is. the exam did not say that violators would be punished with lower grades; it said the limit would be enforced. so, i'd say stopping reading is the best solution.

Posted by: anon | Dec 18, 2006 7:39:21 PM

(and by "stay" i mean "say")

Posted by: Steve Vladeck | Dec 18, 2006 7:19:46 PM

When I have a word limit, my exams always say I'll stop reading at the word limit. And I do.

Posted by: Michael Froomkin | Dec 18, 2006 7:19:19 PM

That begs a notice question, though -- Is the issue whether the student knows _exactly_ how violation of the word limit will be taken into account, or just that the student is on notice that they will lose points for violating word limits, with the exact amount at the discretion of the professor? Isn't it enough to stay "word limits shall be strictly enforced"?

Posted by: Steve Vladeck | Dec 18, 2006 7:19:00 PM

It is too bad that the procedure was not set up before the exam so the student knew what s/he was risking. I think stopping at the word limit is the only legit punishment. Otherwise, you are punishing the student in a way the student could not anticipate.

Posted by: anon | Dec 18, 2006 7:10:58 PM

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